Politics & Policy

Losing One For The Gipper

Why Schwarzenegger is no Reagan.

Last night’s debate underscored why Republicans in the Golden State are so torn between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock. As strong as Schwarzenegger was in delivering sound bites and barbs–And who could not savor his putdowns of the shrill and meretricious Arianna Huffington?–McClintock was a man of specifics and clear principles. California Republicans currently are splitting their votes between these two men, and this schism, if not eliminated soon, will likely prove fatal to the GOP’s hopes of capturing the governorship. But Republican leaders pressuring McClintock to leave the race would do well to scrutinize Schwarzenegger as well. For it is becoming clear that despite an unprecedented media blitz and universal name recognition, only about one out of four Californians is willing to vote for him.

Recent polls have shown two especially notable developments. First, the electorate is split down the middle on whether to oust Governor Gray Davis. Second, there is a congealing of public sentiment around the three leading candidates. Depending on the poll, Cruz Bustamante now garners between 30 and 32 percent of the vote, Schwarzenegger between 25 and 27 percent, and McClintock from 14 to 18 percent. Bustamante’s supporters are mostly partisan Democrats; Schwarzenegger and McClintock are dividing the Republican vote between them; independents are sprinkled in among the three. These groupings are unlikely to change appreciably in the next two weeks unless McClintock drops out. There is still a fairly large bloc of undecided voters (one in five self-described conservatives and one in four moderates were still undecided, according to the most recent Field Poll). Still, unless all of these votes go to one Republican candidate and Bustamante loses some of his support–an unlikely scenario–the odds are stacked against a Republican victory.

Why has Schwarzenegger failed to catch fire? Consider the independent vote, typically the most malleable large bloc of voters. The most recent Los Angeles Times poll shows McClintock actually leads Schwarzenegger among independents, and by a two-to-one margin (28 to 14 percent). McClintock even tops Bustamante among these voters (24 percent). This is presumably because of McClintock’s strong performance in the televised debates and independents’ disgust at Bustamante’s shakedown of the state’s Indian tribes and gambling interests.

Given McClintock’s widening base of support and steady rise in the polls, it is hardly surprising that he is vowing to charge ahead. No rational politician in his position would bow out. And given these shifting fortunes, McClintock can fairly claim that it is Schwarzenegger who is pulling Republican votes away from him, not vice versa.

These trends suggest the people of California have appraised Schwarzenegger as a candidate and found him wanting in certain essential credentials. Two key deficiencies appear to resonate with two different blocs of voters. The electorate as a whole, but particularly independents and less-partisan Democrats, view him as inexperienced and unqualified. Conservative Republicans consider him too liberal. Ironically, both of these are shortcomings that Schwarzenegger–a man famous for meticulous career planning–could have foreseen and eliminated if only he had followed more closely the path taken by Ronald Reagan.

Throughout his life, Schwarzenegger has left little to chance in his dogged pursuit of outsized professional objectives. A recent New York Times article related how 35 years ago, in a conversation with friends, the newly arrived Austrian immigrant outlined his plans to become a movie star, earn millions of dollars, marry a “glamorous wife,” and wield political power. Schwarzenegger has come very close to realizing all four of these audacious dreams. But he is discovering that along the way, in trying to reach his final goal, he has made two fundamental miscalculations.

One was his decision to step directly from the movie screen into politics. Schwarzenegger had seen other actors and entertainers successfully make the transition to elective office. But unlike those predecessors, Schwarzenegger failed to establish himself as a credible political figure before placing his name on the ballot. Such experience is particularly essential for an entertainer seeking to govern a complex nation-state seething with unprecedented troubles. Schwarzenegger was smart enough to anticipate this credibility problem, and he has tried over the years to address the void in his resume. He has undertaken various political pursuits in his spare time: bankrolling a statewide initiative to fund after-school childcare, serving as a presidential fitness adviser. But these, of course, were non-elective positions in which Schwarzenegger held no real responsibility. Voters recognize the difference between hobbies and genuine political experience.

Entertainers who have succeeded in politics generally have not vaulted immediately from Hollywood to high political office, as Schwarzenegger is attempting (even as his most recent film is still in some theaters). Before being elected governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura had served as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota’s sixth-largest city. Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs before running for Congress. Even Clint Eastwood, like Schwarzenegger a star of action films, once served as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Indeed, with such prior public service and his connections to both northern and southern California, Eastwood might well have proved a more formidable candidate for governor than Schwarzenegger.

Such experience matters. Voters can see that in those cities where such stars held political office, the trash was still picked up on time, criminals were brought to justice, the town did not go up in smoke. If nothing else, this experience reassures voters and offers proof that the candidate has a sincere commitment to public service. Schwarzenegger’s lack of comparable experience is proving to be a deal-breaker. While Schwarzenegger’s general evasion of debates and press inquiries has not affected his public support, his lack of public service has. When voters were asked in the latest Los Angeles Times who has the best experience for the job, the top vote-getters were Davis (35 percent), McClintock (25 percent), and Bustamante (20 percent). Schwarzenegger received just one percent.

Ronald Reagan offered the voters a far more impressive political resume. Five times, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, a significant quasi-political office. On SAG’s behalf Reagan led tough negotiations with studios and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Reagan also was a prominent supporter of Barry Goldwater during his 1964 presidential campaign, and became nationally known as a serious political figure through these efforts. All of this experience bolstered Reagan’s credentials and sharpened his political and rhetorical skills. Last night’s debate showed Schwarzenegger would have benefited from similar training prior to running for office (he likely would have learned, for example, not to allow himself to be baited by Huffington). He also would have emerged a much more credible candidate for governor.

Schwarzenegger is also losing because many conservatives do not trust him. It is not hard to see why. Schwarzenegger supports virtually unrestricted abortion rights, the gay-rights agenda (including recognition of “domestic partnerships,” which surely is a precursor to expensive state entitlements and benefits for such couples), and gun control. Schwarzenegger even has said he was “ashamed” that Republicans led the effort to impeach Bill Clinton, a position that puts him dramatically at odds with almost all Republicans. These positions happen to be popular in California but not with the conservative Republican faithful.

Schwarzenegger could have avoided this situation simply by positioning himself differently. It seems reasonable to assume that a man calculating and supple enough to conquer Hollywood is not above taking poll-tested positions on public issues. That Schwarzenegger’s stated opinions happen to mirror the views of most Californians is surely not a random stroke of fortune; and, in fairness, he is certainly not the first aspiring politician to tell the people what he thinks they want to hear. But this too was a miscalculation given the dynamic of this election. Schwarzenegger needs the support of conservatives to win. And while many self-described conservatives are supporting Schwarzenegger for pragmatic reasons (McClintock barely edges out Schwarzenegger among conservatives, 39 to 38 percent), there are only so many conservatives who are willing to do so.

Here again, the difference between Schwarzenegger and Reagan is telling. Reagan entered the 1966 gubernatorial race not only a relatively seasoned political figure for a first-time candidate, but also a man with a set of well-defined conservative beliefs. Not all of his views were popular. But this integrity of philosophy, the result of long and sincere reflection, gave Reagan certain ballast as well as a base of unwavering popular support that ultimately propelled him into the White House.

Imagine if Schwarzenegger were a conservative with some meaningful experience in public service. The rationale for a McClintock candidacy would vanish. Most of the people currently supporting Schwarzenegger would still be with him; McClintock’s support among independents–and, for that matter, Reagan’s success–shows that qualified conservatives can win support from those who disagree with them on social issues. Schwarzenegger would now be on his way to victory.

Perhaps Schwarzenegger will be able to shake up the race with his solid performance last night (amid low expectations) and a new volley of TV ads. Still, unless McClintock exits the race soon, the polling trends suggest Schwarzenegger will not be successful in his first attempt at public office. If that happens, he will nevertheless remain after the election a potent force in California politics. He would be in a strong position to challenge Barbara Boxer for the Senate, where the job duties are representation rather than governance–a difference which would make voters more forgiving of a political neophyte.

Regardless, Schwarzenegger would do well to take stock of why he has not fared as well as he might have this time out. He is faltering in his attempt to follow Ronald Reagan’s footsteps to the governorship for two basic reasons: He has not done what Reagan did and he does not believe what Reagan believed. And that has made all the difference.

Andrew Peyton Thomas, an attorney and author in Phoenix, was the Republican nominee for attorney general of Arizona last year.


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